Friday, September 19, 2014

Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times by Miriam Silverberg

The content of Miriam Silverberg’s crowning scholarly achievement Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times has been covered by Japanese Studies pedagogues, philosophers, historians and casual readers ever since it appeared in print in 2006. The internet is full of glowing reviews. Here are a couple of remarks I managed to snap up from the JSTOR panoply:

With its wide-raging perspective, its elegant use of theory, and its rich bibliographic citations, Silverberg’s volume will no doubt become an essential resource for scholars and students interested in almost any aspect of Japanese society in the 1920s and 1930s. (Jeffrey Angles, Western Michigan University) 

Reading Miriam Silverberg’s book on “erotic, grotesque, nonsense,” a popular catchphrase for Japanese urban mass culture of the late 1920s and early 1930s, brings you into a seductive world of popular magazines, ethnographic commentary, social surveys, novels, and movies that depicted the popular culture of everyday life in the entertainment districts of Tokyo… What she gives us is a timely and provocative challenge to the master narratives of interwar and wartime Japan, highlighting the political and social possibilities opened up by popular culture of the 1920s and 1930s, a moment more typically identified as the gathering of fascism. (Louise Young, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

So what else is there to say about the book? Nothing I will write in the following paragraphs will appear new. Silverberg’s opus is the child of a grand vision, one that aims to convey a theoretical and thematic unity. It reveals a particular concern with the representation of Japanese mass culture during the 1920s and early 1930s and it details the political implications of this representation and, in particular, the public’s responses to it. Silverberg shows us that multiplicity of ideas and behaviors was the fundamental characteristic of this remarkable period in Japanese ‘modern’ history, even though at the time the establishment figures were caught in a struggle to consolidate their control over the population by re-affirming (and occasionally by brutally imposing) time and time again the unity of the people, the congruity of national spirit and the moral integrity of social order. This moralism imposed from above couldn’t stand a chance against the emancipatory cultural transmutations that took place under the aegis of rampant consumerism and rapid industrialization and reached their historical peak just before Japan committed itself fully and tragically to its imperialist ambitions. The haphazard ambience of social and cultural disorders or disequilibriums during the Taishō and early Shōwa periods and the ensuing urban reconfigurations were unified under the label of ero guro nansensu. But this is my own simplified definition of this cultural and historical Event (I’m using Badiou’s broad application of the term), one that requires deeper examination, something that Silverberg’s book successfully delivers over more than 350 pages. 

I first encountered the idiomatic expression in Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, 1853-1964 where he compared the atmosphere “marked by a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism” of Taishō Japan to Weimar Berlin. In this setting, ero guro nansensu (or ‘erotic grotesque nonsense’) was characterized by a collective of contrasting images:

Longhaired young men in roido (from Harold Lloyd) glasses, bell-bottom trousers, colored shirts, and floppy ties would stroll down the willow-lined avenue with young women in bobbed hairdos. The more earnest ones, who gathered in “milk bars” to discuss German philosophy or Russian novels, were known as Marx boys and Marx girls. A few years later, the fashionable young would be renamed mobos (modern boys) and their flapper girlfriends mogas (modern girls). Aside from the milk bars, the Ginza abounded in German-style beer halls and Parisian-style cafés, with waitresses who were free with their favors — for a modest fee. Many patrons of these establishments, with such names as Tiger Café and Lion Beer Hall, were journalists, who, like the cafe waitresses, were a feature of this bright new age of mass media and entertainment. Up the street, near Hibiya Park, where the riots of 1905 took place, Frank Lloyd Wright was building the Imperial Hotel, where people would take their tea and eat ultrafashionable “Chaplin caramels.”

Cafés, waitresses, mogas, mobos and Chaplin also feature prominently in Silverberg's book. While Buruma utilizes a variety of English-based reputable works to render his account of an exciting, decadent Tokyo, Silverberg is far more rigorous in her research: the extensive biography which includes innumerable Japanese primary sources stands proof of her comprehension of the book’s intricate topic and her brilliancy as a Japanese Studies scholar. 

And not just as a Japanese Studies scholar. Like she did in her other articles, and because she believes the cultural to be inseparable from the political, Silverberg references extensively from Perry Anderson, Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, T. J. Clarke, David Harvey, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Raymond Williams and others in order to support her research. Japanese political theorists are not ignored either. She cites liberally from a list which includes hundreds of scholars, fiction writers and journalists. A capable theoretician and ethnographer, she blends the ideas of all these influential thinkers and more and, in the end, she gives a picture of the Japanese mass culture of 1920s and 1930s as complete as it will ever be.

In the following lines I want to take a closer look at the theoretical foundations and influences behind the larger narrative of the book. I will not go into details about the contents of each chapter; instead I want to investigate the “gateways” which lead to the fantastic, multidimensional universe of Taishō mass culture as it appears in the pages of Silverberg’s life’s work. All of the important theoretical constructs which she employs again and again (including in articles and essays not included in this book) can be encountered in the short introduction and in Chapter One. I will hence ignore an overview of Silverberg’s documentary-style collages (as entertaining and compelling as they are) a narrative device used in the development of each chapter and in the crafting of the book’s overall argument. 

But what is the argument? This is premised on the notion of the titular expression ero guro nansensu. Silverberg states that this expression was used typically to attack and vilify what was seen as Japan’s moral ruination brought about by an unwavering consumerism and a mass culture imported from “outside,” mainly from the West. Such culture was celebratory of its own degradation and its consumption was felt by the higher echelons of power to distract the population from taking part in the socio-political “uniformization” of the nation. On the other hand, militant activists for social change criticized this consumption as sidetracking the people from emancipatory action, even while they indulged in its seductive offerings or used it as a means to disseminate their message. In spite of its contrasting, contradictory nature, ero guro nansensu underlined the ubiquitous forms of modernity and social change from the Taishō to early Shōwa period. In Silverberg’s words, the culture of this timeframe “in no small part included fantasies, language, and gestures sold and created by ‘consumer objects,’ including those rendered down and out by the vicissitudes of capitalism.” The predominant delight in consumer culture and the individuals’ identification with it was the motor for social and cultural organization, even when the government came crushing down on these “acts of insurgency.” 

One tends to examine Japan from the 1920s to the 1940s with a critical eye to the diminishing democracy, various forms of political oppression, populist violence and the incursions into Korea and China as glaring precursors to the Pacific War. Silverberg however dissects this view “from the top” by reading into the mores and behaviors of regular Japanese people “a popular mobilization that offered an alternative to the state ideology of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, albeit one positioned from within capitalist structures of domination.” In what is probably a most radical judgment of the general Japanese urban population from that time, Silverberg announces that

The consumer was both a subject of the emperor and a subject with agency acting as autonomously as the imperial system would allow. Japanese women and men were both privy to a network of pleasures offered within mass culture and subject to an increasingly tight web of state controls on freedom of expression and consumption. And when considering them as imperial subjects, we must also recognize that not only was the imperial reign said to span countless generations, it also covered the contemporaneous geographic terrain of empire.

Hence even as the government strengthened its control, the people as consumers could still express and fulfill their desires under a constricted form of freedom. Far from being de-politicized, the masses, by partaking in the corporal (fleshly) consumerism of the capitalist order, found themselves inadvertently mobilized in a culture of play that ran counter to the government’s requirements. The re-imagining of identity and the sense of belonging captured by individuals spending the bulk of their existence in cafés, boulevards and parks — in the company of café waitresses, dancers and prostitutes, among mogas, mobos, foreigners, freaks, hawkers, juvenile delinquents, beggars and vagrants — could be viewed as emblematic acts of resistance against the authority of the school system, the military and the religious institutions. The Imperial Rescript on Education and its ideal notion of filial piety towards family and, by extension, towards emperor and empire, was being re-defined as often as it was being disregarded. It was in this setting that the emancipated woman, the Modern Girl (Silverberg refuses to use the term moga) outgrew from a commodified cultural construct essentially relegated to an objectified, inferior position by the ryōsai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) ideology into a working woman, a militant, an uninhibited consumer of and participant in mass media. 

There is a lot more to say about Silverberg’s methodology but right now I just want to make a few observations on the imperious figure of capitalism, a major protagonist in the book, the “hero” which facilitates the emancipation of the consumer subject. I think that the legitimacy which capitalism yields in her book is an accidental characterization. Silverberg’s sympathies are evidently towards leftist writers and rebels, people who challenged the oppressive, increasingly fascist system through concrete acts of resistance. But it is noteworthy to mention that even these iconoclasts or dissenters were big consumers of mass culture. In 1930s Japan, social and economic inequalities were glaring and undisguised. These were caused not in small part by the global breakdown and, at the height of the ‘Yellow Peril’ current, by Western isolationist policies. In the eyes of the West, Japan was being viewed as increasingly assertive and belligerent. This negative opinion was not represented in the Japanese consumerist economy of the time. In fact, through a process known as code-switching (covered in part here) Western artifacts were blended into the Japanese mass-marketed cultural output for increased popularity. It may have bothered the traditionalist dogmatists and the ultra-conservatives — to the point where they forcefully introduced legally punishable measures against their use — but Western-influenced merchandise and ideas were in vogue. Because they were seen as misdirecting people’s attention from state-imposed values and practices, consumption of these objects was branded as opposition, even hostility to the state. It may appear strange at first that Silverberg equates consumerism(s) with acts of political resistance. But as Aijaz Ahmad put it subtly, politics aren’t as much an object of opposition as they are acts of solidarity:

…it is always much less problematic to denounce dictators and to affirm, instead, a generality of values — ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ — but always much harder to affiliate oneself with specific kinds of praxis, conceived not in terms of values which serve as a judgment on history but as a solidarity with communities of individuals, simultaneously flawed and heroic, who act within that history, from determinate social and political positions.

In their embrace of ero guro nansensu culture, the people of Japan did come together and formed communities that, in the long run, were viewed by the authoritarian government as dangerous to its self-preservation. It’s no wonder that by the early 1940s ero guro nansensu completely disappeared from cultural output, being replaced by subservient expressions of patriotism and reverence towards the imperial nation and its head figure, the emperor. Despite this unfortunate development, as Silverberg wrote in the last lines of her book,

The history of modern Japanese culture was suffused by meanings and tensions, created, consumed, and then not forgotten by the women, the men, and the children who went out to play in the city streets, and who were then sent to war, before they were told not to remember.

Today the English-speaking world can remember because of Silverberg’s unparalleled research and exceptional insight. 

Works cited:

Angles, Jeffrey. "Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Time. By Miriam Silverberg. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Monumenta Nipponica 63.2 (2008): 434-436.

Young, Louise. "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Time. By Miriam Silverberg. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. The Journal of Asian Studies 67.02 (2008): 731-733.

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